The lounge singer
He’s played with Big Brother and the Holding Company and written famous advertising jingles. Now, George Pickard loves the lounge scene.
Longtime Reno lounge act George Pickard has 2,000 songs in his head. And as many stories.
“This is so cool,” Pickard says, his good-natured, grandfatherly face lighting up in the glitzy green glow of Fitzgerald’s Casino, where he’s been performing all afternoon. “At least, I think it’s cool. This agent named Al King heard that I play sax. He called me up. He asked if I’d like to play with The Kingsmen.”
It was to be the beginning of a several-month stint with the guys who sang “Louis Louis.” King was trying to book The Kingsmen at a club, and the band needed a saxophonist.
“He said we’d meet at a race track,” Pickard explains. “[King said], ‘The band will be there. Act like you know them.’ “
The club’s owner was going to be at the race track, too, so to help woo him into booking The Kingsmen, Pickard had to pretend he was already part of the band. It was something straight out of Hollywood, complete with the agent sitting there in the stands, tugging on a cigar. “If you look up ‘agent,’ that would be [King’s] picture.”
Pickard impressed the agent enough to get his gig with the Kingsmen, and the band impressed the club owner enough to get their gig at the club. Pickard went on the road with The Kingsmen—but still couldn’t understand the garbled “Louie Louie.”
“If you look at the words, it’s talking about going to Jamaica. But nobody could understand the words. I [asked the lead singer], What are the words? He said, ‘I change them.’ “
Pickard’s work with The Kingsmen came near the start of his 40-year career. Pickard, who grew up in Antioch, Calif., made his first professional appearances in the Air Force in the early 1960s, playing clarinet in a marching band. Over the next decade, Pickard grew his hair long and donned tie-dye and bell-bottoms—"Austin Powers stuff.” He played with Big Brother and the Holding Company and opened for the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and Jefferson Airplane.
“I’ve had a great career,” he says.
Pickard’s career has since taken on mellower dimensions. He spent four years touring with lounge act The Partners, traveling with the band as well as his wife and three children (one of whom is George Pickard of The Atomiks). After settling down, he wrote advertising jingles, including a famous Cabbage Patch doll Christmas song and an anti-New Coke tune called “Coke Was It.”
“That was the rally song for a movement called the Old Coke Drinkers of America,” he says.
Pickard moved to Reno in the early 1980s and became a favorite in the casino lounge circuit. Fitzgerald’s is one of his regular spots—it’s easy for him to interact with the audience from the stage above the bar. Often, he’ll ask audience members where they’re from and make up songs about them; other times, he’ll ask a patron what year he was born in, and play a song from that year—whether it’s 1981 or 1942.
“Every time I try to write down [all] the songs [I know], I get sleepy,” he says.
Pickard has come to a stage in life he refers to as “Elder Cool.”
“You reach that time and you no longer have to struggle," he says. "I’m enjoying [music] more now than I used to. I don’t have to worry about making a mark. I just play a song."